This Week’s Guest Blogger is Toby Beasley

Queen Victoria and Violets

As Head Gardener at Osborne I’m often looking for period plants (ones which were available before Queen Victoria’s death in 1901) or specific varieties from the archives, to help create more interest in the garden. I had a vague memory that one of Queen Victoria’s favourite plants was the violet, so I decided to do some research.

Aged 14, Victoria wrote in her journal on the 30th March 1834, ‘Mamma gave me two very pretty little china baskets with violets, and some pretty buttons.’ This is the first entry in a lifetime of keeping her detailed diaries where she specifically mentions violets. Overall there are 105 references to violets in her journals, with many referring to picking ‘primroses and violets’ especially at Osborne.

Violets and their uses
Violets were clearly a favourite with Victoria throughout her life, but they were popular for a very long time before she brought them to the forefront of fashion.
The first records describing the use of violets in Europe are from ancient Greece where they seem to be used for medicinal purposes. They were associated with the Virgin Mary in Christian tradition, had a symbolic meaning with humility and were also used in garlands. During the Tudor period herbalists mention the plant being good for treating headaches, depression and constipation as well as being a good strewing herb. It’s around this time that the name ‘Sweet Violet’ starts to be used, referring to the sweet smell given by the flowers of Viola odorata, a native plant of the UK and much of Europe.
By the 18th century violets were being used to enhance toiletries and perfumes, and were grown commercially in France and the UK. Due to their exceptional scent, Sweet and Parma violets were commonly sold as small posies, or nosegays, to help cope with the noxious smells of large cities. They were also worn as buttonholes or in hat bands.
Sir Joseph Banks, the famous plant collector and unofficial director of Kew Gardens under King George III, cultivated 300 pots of Parma violets at his garden in Isleworth in 1816 but it is really towards the middle of the century that violet production and popularity hit its peak.
A very Victorian flower
With their love of attaching meaning to flowers Victorians regarded violets as a symbol for modesty and fidelity, due to the plants habit of holding its flowers in a low nodding deferential manner. The phrase ‘shrinking violet’, first coined by the English poet Leigh Hunt in 1820, was popularised during the Victorian era and reflected the plants qualities of modesty and shyness on people.
By the 1880’s around 6 million violet bunches were being sold annually in Paris and exported as far afield as Russia. Queen Victoria spent many holidays on the French Riviera, especially late in her life, and often visited during the spring when the violets would be in bloom.
‘As I was coming down the hill in the pony chair, little children from the village gave me bunches of violets, primroses and other wild flowers,’ she wrote during her visit to the French Riviera in April 1885. With the queen’s endorsement, both the French Riviera and violets grew their fashionable status.
From the late 19th century violets had a slow but steady decline in popularity. The perfume industry began to use ionone, a molecule that has a violet fragrance which was isolated from the roots of Iris germanica var. florentina. The violet leaf midge, Dasineura affinis, became a considerable pest of and changes in the employment market in the twentieth century made commercial growing of these plants uneconomical.
At the same time, the large stately homes that had collections of the harder to grow Parma violet struggled to keep their estates going. Several very cold winters in the mid 20th century were harsh for the plants and anyway, fashion was changing. By the end of the 1950’s the fashion for violets and their commercial worth had all but disappeared, and many of the cultivars raised in the previous three centuries now seem to have been lost.
Violets you can see at Osborne this spring
Today, violets have a small but dedicated following – including here at Osborne.
Our archives aren’t comprehensive but there are plenty of mentions of picking violets, sending violets to friends and acquaintances and odd references of violets that must have been grown in the gardens.
In February 1874 Victoria recorded in her journal ‘The snow drops, violets and wall flowers so pretty, in the garden at the Swiss cottage’. In January 1882 (also when visiting Swiss cottage) she mentioned ‘Many violets out, smelling so sweet, and many little roses,’ which considering the time of year could be referring to potted plants that have been forced by the gardeners. There are also many other mentions of the wild violets growing around the estate.
We have replenished our stocks of violets recently with five Parma violet cultivars and four Sweet violets. They are displayed in the cold frame in the walled garden through the winter and early spring to fill a gap in the flowering season.

Violet varieties being grown at Osborne
Parma Violets
Viola ‘Swanley White’, raised in 1880, white double flowers with slight blue tints, synonymous with Viola ‘Conte di Brazza’. This cultivar won the Royal Horticultural Society’s (RHS) First Class Certificate in 1883.
Viola ‘Duchesse de Parme’, raised in 1870, pale lavender blue flowers, very prolific and easy to grow.
Viola ‘Lady Hume Campbell’, raised in 1875, lavender mauve flowers, synonymous with Viola ‘Gloire d’Angoulême’ and one of the varieties grown at Windsor Castle in Queen Victoria’s reign.
Viola ‘Marie Louise’, raised in 1865 but could well be older, deep lavender blue flowers and another of the cultivars grown at Windsor Castle in Queen Victoria’s reign.
Viola ‘Neapolitan’, possible the original Parma violet and in cultivation for at least 400 years, pale silvery lavender flowers, long flowering period.

Viola ‘Swanley White’

Sweet Violets
Viola ‘Baronness de Rothschild’, raised in 1894, synonymous with Viola ‘Baronne Alice de Rothschild’ a lady who showed Queen Victoria her garden when on holiday in Grasse in 1891, large violet blue flowers borne on long stems, early flowering.
Viola ‘John Raddenbury’, raised in 1895, medium sized pale blue flowers, often used for cut flower production, named after the first director of Melbourne Botanic garden.
Viola ‘Koningin Charlotte’, raised in 1900, very sweetly scented, blue upward facing flowers, long flowering season from August to early spring.
Viola ‘Princess of Wales’, raised in 1889, large violet blue flowers on long stems, the most popular commercially grown cut flower, another of the cultivars grown at Windsor Castle in Queen Victoria’s reign and awarded the RHS Award of Merit in 1895

This Week’s Guest Blogger is Adam Pasco


By Adam Pasco

Like many of you, I love gardening!

As a young child, and with no television in the house, I preferred being outside. Ours was a large overgrown Victorian garden where ground elder ruled, complete with mature fruit trees, veg plot, derelict greenhouse and potting shed. With five kids in the family, we were each given an area of our own to nurture, and that’s where my passion for gardening began!

An interest in plants and nature led me to work on a tree and shrub nursery before studying for a degree in horticulture and entering the world of gardening journalism. For me gardening has become so much more than a hobby, but my family garden is where it started all those years ago.

I’ve always known that gardening means different things to different people, but research from around the world has now confirmed something many gardeners already know ­– gardening really is good for you!


Not only are gardens great places to relax, but just being in or looking out onto gardens and green spaces has been shown to relieve stress, improving wellbeing and creativity. By creating a beautiful garden outside your own back door you’ll have a personal sanctuary to step out into, and somewhere to grow healthy food, welcome in wildlife, and spend time with family and friends.

Adam Pasco’s Garden. Photographers Adam Pasco & Luke Pasco June 3rd 2013


Gardening has many benefits for your health and wellbeing. These include providing exercise and staying active, relieving stress, grounding and connecting with nature, enjoying and sharing your garden with others – all helping to feed your mind, body and soul.

It’s a creative, rewarding and productive pastime, with opportunities to learn new skills, find out about exciting new plants, share ideas and make new friends. All these have a positive and restorative affect on mental and physical health, keeping mind and body active, whatever your age.

In fact, gardening has be described as the Natural Health Service, as doctors recognise the numerous benefits gardening brings without the need for costly therapies and drugs, with their unwelcome side effects.


For instance, eating well can start by growing your own organic homegrown crops – all part of the ‘5 a day’ we all need to provide nutrients, health-boosting vitamins and minerals, and essential phytochemicals that help protect our bodies against disease. Herbs not only add wonderful flavours to our home cooking and teas, but bring many health benefits too.

Crops can be grown in even the smallest of spaces, providing the reward of picking fresh produce you’ve raised yourself. Combine these with colourful plants and fragrant flowers and any outdoor space will be transformed to become a truly sensory experience, giving you somewhere relaxing to sit or a vibrant space to socialise and entertain with family and friends.


By choosing the right plants we can design gardens that encourage birds, bees, butterflies and other wildlife to drop in for food, water and shelter, or even take up residence. Many beneficial insects and creatures also feed on garden pests too, controlling them naturally without the need to spray with harmful pesticides.

Developing an all-year-round wildlife-friendly garden satisfies our own creativity and feeling of achievement, bringing us outdoors and closer to nature to reduce stress and improve our wellbeing. Contact with plants and the soil also enhances our health and boosts the immune system, too.


‘Gardening is Good For You’ is the theme of a new monthly plant promotion I have developed for the Horticultural Trades Association. Starting in January 2019, different topics related to gardening for health and wellbeing will be highlighted each month, so check out you local garden centres to see if they are involved.


Adam Pasco is an experienced gardener, lecturer and consultant living in Peterborough. As the former editor of BBC Gardeners’ World magazine, Waitrose Garden, Garden News and Garden Answers magazines he has worked on a variety of gardening television programmes, books, magazines, websites and newspapers during his 36 years as a gardening journalist.

He has twice been crowned ‘Editor of the Year’ by the British Society of Magazine Editors, and been awarded ‘Practical Journalist of the Year’ by the Garden Media Guild.

Adam is currently working with the HTA on a new monthly garden centre promotion for 2019/20 on the theme ‘Gardening is Good For You’ promoting the health and wellbeing benefits of gardening.

For Adam’s contact details visit

This Week’s Guest Blogger is Michael Elgey

As a child I was enthralled when watching wildlife documentaries. I not only found the animals fascinating but the landscapes and environments which they occupy. In many of these documentaries filmed in Africa, Madagascar and Northern Australia there would usually be shots and panoramas with the mighty Boab trees. Boabs small but not insignificant group of trees in the Genus Adansonia. These trees are so iconic that someone can typically recognise them even without knowing their common or scientific names.  Some species of Adansonia can grow to a height 24.8 m with trunk girth of 23.6 m. Their dominance  over the landscape is so great that film director Jamie Uys in his movies The Gods Must be Crazy he filmed many shots beneath and within the canopy of African Boab Trees. So when I became interested in Horticulture I attempted to grow a Boab in Western Sydney but with little success due to Sydney’s climate. It actually wasn’t until 2011 that I had the experience of seeing a spectacular stand of Boabs at Mt Cooth-tha Botanic Gardens in Brisbane. Now fast forward to 2018 and I have the absolute pleasure and responsibility to curate several specimens at Rockhampton Botanic Gardens in Central Queensland. These specimens may be young compared to how long they can live but they are just as fascinating and enthralling to me now as they were when I was a child.

For more information about Rockhampton Botanic Gardens in Australia